4 Practical Tips for Swimming Straight in Open Water

A Marine student heads into the ocean at Onslow Beach on Camp Lejeune, N.C. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Mark Fayloga)

To perform well in training for SEALs, Navy EOD, Dive Schools, SWCC, Marine Recon, Air Force PJ, Rescue Swimmer and other special diving programs, you must master swimming straight (and fast). When swimming in the open water (not a pool) with fins, additional techniques are needed to swim straight and not add distance/time to your swimming event.

Open-water swimming in the military is mostly accomplished with scuba fins while performing a combat side stroke or lead-arm-trail-arm side stroke. When going from the pool to open water, the clarity of the water and swimming at night can be hurdles to getting comfortable outside the pool. Because of the low-profile nature of these types of swims, swimming on your side can cause some challenges with staying straight on course. The root causes of these challenges are shoulder mobility, posture and not paying attention.

Typical fin swims in special operations training in open water are 1-2 nautical miles (2,000-4,000 yards). Each week at SEAL training, you will do a two-mile ocean swim with fins. Swims can get longer and build up to five or six miles, so swimming straight is more than just important; meeting the standards each week is needed. Standards are not that difficult, but each phase of training requires faster times:

  • Phase 1: 85 minutes/two-mile swim
  • Phase 2: 80 minutes/two-mile swim
  • Phase 3: 75 minutes/two-mile swim

When practicing in the pool, make sure you start using the following techniques. Otherwise, you may sometimes swim greater distances due to zigzagging and doing more "pop-ups" to see where you are than in focused swimming.

1. Perfect Posture Prevents Swimming Like a Banana

Tight shoulders and chest muscles can pull your arms forward and prevent a straighter, streamlined body position. However, the upper-back muscles that comprise the posture muscles could be underdeveloped and weak. A combination of both is likely the cause. 

Add more upper-body stretching and upper-back exercises to deal with the imbalance preventing you from swimming straight. Workouts such as the PT Reset are a good start to building the upper-back muscles and increasing the shoulders' range of motion.

2. Check the Tightness of Your Wetsuit

A tight suit may prevent you from easily placing your arms over your head in a nice, streamlined position. Another reason to get a less restrictive wetsuit is the chance of getting a performance-dropping ailment called Swimmer-Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE). SIPE has been an issue in military swimming training and could be tied to cold water and wet suits that restrict blood flow and range of motion of the arms, shoulders and neck during swimming events.

If left untreated, SIPE can become pneumonia, which can exacerbate heat exhaustion/heat stroke if you continue to keep doing difficult workouts. The snowball can continue to rhabdomyolysis, which can put your military training on hold while you visit the hospital for several days.

Not straight vs. straight.

3. Staying Vigilant Is Key During Open-Water Swimming

It's important to look up every 5-10 strokes to ensure you're on track with your destination. The initial open-water swims can be distracting, so it's important to incorporate a forward look into your swim routine every few strokes. This practice helps prevent deviations from the course due to posture/streamline issues, tides and currents. 

Guiding yourself in the open water will require popping up to see the turnaround buoy or destination. In decent ocean swells, the pop-up to look forward may need to be timed while being on top of the swell or wave. However, the pop-up can be reduced if you look for tall trees, buildings or towers in line with you and the turnaround point or destination.

4. Distance Method

Utilizing distance as a guide is a practical and effective technique when swimming parallel to the beach. Position yourself outside the breaking waves and maintain a distance from the beach. Visualize staying 100 meters away from the beach; this method is a reliable guide if the beach is straight. 

Often, staying 10-15 meters outside the breaking waves is sufficient to keep you on track when swimming parallel to the shore. This method is particularly useful on a straight beach, offering a practical solution to maintain your straight course.

As you do more swims, you will start to swim straighter without multiple pop-ups to look at where you are going. However, you still need to do some to ascertain the directions of any tides or currents pushing or pulling you off course.

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